Gambling, drinking, guns and bombs — Tulsa’s rock ‘n’ roll gigs of the 1950s felt like Wild West shows
By JOHN WOOLEY
Before rock ‘n’ roll exploded in the late ’50s, there weren’t many places in Tulsa where a talented kid could play in front of a crowd.
Tommy Crook, who left rock ‘n’ roll to become the best-known solo guitarist in town, remembers.
“The Ritz and the Rialto and the Orpheum (movie theaters) used to have these stage shows on Saturday afternoons and Saturday nights, in between movies,” he said. “They started out as talent shows, with the 10-dollar first prize for talent, and then turned into like a Saturday night barn dance, with 15 or 20 different acts. They’d have bales of hay up there — it was just like the Grand Ole Opry. A guy’d come out and introduce the acts, and most everybody had comedy. I’d tell jokes and sing those old novelty tunes, like ‘Smoke That Cigarette.’ That’s where I first met (J.J.) Cale.
“That’s how I got started, and there wasn’t anybody else doing anything then,” he adds. ” ‘Course, there wasn’t any place for them to do it anyway. Back in those days, there was one all-night grocery store, the Trenton Market. And as far as restaurants and clubs, there wasn’t any such thing. They didn’t even really have those brown-bag things in those days, because until ’59, everything was bootleg whiskey.”
1959 was indeed the year that the nightlife scene changed in Tulsa.
Before that, the only alcoholic beverage that could be served in Oklahoma bars was 3.2 beer. An election in 1959 made it legal to sell liquor and wine in package stores; clubs had to operate under strict guidelines. They couldn’t legally sell liquor. A patron, theoretically, had to bring in a bottle and put it behind the bar. It was illegal for a liquor container to be sitting atop a table, so some clubs thoughtfully provided little bottle holders the tables, so people wouldn’t have to panic in case of a raid.
Originally published by Tulsa World on December 28, 2003
Rock of Ages: Part One
Titled “Birth of the beat,” the first part of these series, dives deep into the beginnings of the Tulsa Music Scene and the teenagers, whose talents, created the Tulsa Sound: Leon Russell, JJ Cale, David Gates, Gene Crose, Clyde Stacy, Bobby Taylor, Wally Wiggins, Jack Dunham, Lucky Clark, Junior Markham and Tommy Rush, along with their friends and fellow musicians, some of whom would go on to significant careers in rock ‘n’ roll.
What is Rock of Ages?
A five-part series on the early history of rock ‘n’ roll in Tulsa written by John Wooley, originally published in the Tulsa World.
Used with permission from the Tulsa World.
JOHN WOOLEY is a writer, lecturer, filmmaker, and radio host who specializes in the movies, literature, and music of the 1930s and ‘40s as well as other pop-culture history. He has written, co-written, or edited more than 40 books, scripted a number of documentaries, with his scripting extending to comic books and graphic novels. An entertainment writer for the Tulsa World newspaper for 23 years (1983-2006), Wooley has seen his articles and interviews appear in a wide range of other publications, fromTV Guide to the horror-movie magazine Fangoria, for which he wrote more than 100 pieces. He is also the producer and host of the highly rated Swing on This, Tulsa’s only western-swing radio program.
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